Cubs

Time to stop talking about what sub-.500 Cubs could be: 'We have to prove it on the field'

Time to stop talking about what sub-.500 Cubs could be: 'We have to prove it on the field'

NEW YORK — This idea the Cubs will simply get healthy, get hot and take off assumes all the other parts will stay in place, that there will be no more injuries, downturns or surprises when this game is constantly shifting in real time. No one knows what the crisis of confidence might look or feel like the longer this goes and the deeper the defending World Series champs get into the season.

This team is in survival mode now. How will everything start clicking when the Cubs don’t know what they’re going to get from one night to the next?

“We’ve earned the right to be in this position,” manager Joe Maddon said after watching a bullpen meltdown during Wednesday night’s 9-4 loss to the New York Mets. “We’ve played well enough to be a .500 club. We have a nice group. And I believe in our group. But we have to prove it on the field.”

The Cubs got back-to-back homers from Anthony Rizzo and Ian Happ leading off the game, saw Kyle Schwarber launch a 467-foot rocket over the Citi Field bridge and knocked out Matt Harvey after four innings, but still couldn’t manufacture any tack-on runs.

Redeploying Mike Montgomery weakens a bullpen already stressed from covering for a rotation with a 4.66 ERA and 24 quality starts. The Cubs didn’t back up the lefty swingman in the second inning when All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant fielded a routine groundball and then dropped the third out, creating an unearned run.

But it’s not the errors as much as the plays not made by what was supposed to be an elite defensive unit. Montgomery couldn’t put away Steven Matz — a pinch-hitting pitcher — in the fourth inning and that bases-loaded infield single helped set up two more runs.

“We need to do a better job,” Rizzo said. “We got to hold leads. We got to hit better with runners in scoring position. We got to give our pitchers better opportunities to come in with a bigger lead. All the little things — you got to get back to it.”

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Around the Cubs, there is a flip side to any optimistic regressions to the mean with their young hitters. Like Carl Edwards Jr. not being almost perfect. After throwing seven pitches in a scoreless seventh inning, Edwards watched Chicago guy Curtis Granderson lead off the eighth by driving a curveball into the right-field seats for his 300th career home run and a 5-4 lead. A disappointing Mets team (30-34) piled on against Edwards and Hector Rondon.

Besides drawing from the playoff experience and relying on exceptional individual talents, what can this team bank on at the moment? The Cubs are 32-33, have trailed in 51 games so far and haven’t won three series in a row since April.

“There is a certain unpredictability about us,” Maddon said. “That’s why we’re a .500 ballclub right now. That’s what happens when you’re .500. You don’t play that same good game every day.”

It can’t all be written off as youth, as much as Maddon will spin in that direction.

“Happ didn’t play in the big leagues last year,” Maddon said. “(Willson) Contreras played half a season. Schwarber did not play at all. (Javier) Baez was a backup player. And (Albert) Almora came up in the middle of the season.

“I love my names as much as everybody else does. But these are really young and inexperienced guys. What you’re primarily seeing is young guys battling to get back to what we had been last year without the benefit of having veteran experience.”

Having said all that, the National League Central is a bad division with only one team barely above .500 — the Milwaukee Brewers in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.

“We’re still a confident ballclub,” Schwarber said. “We’re going to go out there every day and we’re going to compete our asses off.

“I’d take our guys any day.”

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.